Besides development, there are three basics threats to the chaparral ecosystem in California that ultimately lead to the type conversion of native shrublands to non-native weedlands.
1. Excessive fire
2. "Fuel treatments" conducted by fire agencies
3. Misconceptions leading to negative public attitudes
Misconceptions about chaparral have the potential of being the most dangerous because they lead to irrational public policy that promotes destructive land management practices such broadscale destruction of native shrublands through grinding, burning, and the spraying of herbicides.
Please see our Help! CalFire EIR page for details on a proposed, misguided policy that targets millions of acres in California for clearance operations that will likely lead to type conversion.
When chaparral is viewed primarily as fuel and not as a valued ecosystem, it is threatened by poor land management practices
On the cover of the Fall 2007 issue of Fremontia (above left), the quarterly journal of the California Native Plant Society, a remarkable stand of manzanita chaparral was featured (located in the Trabuco Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest). The area was clear cut by the US Forest Service shortly thereafter in an attempt to reduce “fuel” around an artificial tree plantation (above right). The plantation was established in 1956 with a mix of Coulter pines and a Frankenpine-like hybrid between Monterey and knobcone pines. Coulters are native to the area and have adapted to living within the chaparral plant community by having serotinous cones which open when exposed to fire: being surrounded by chaparral is their natural condition.
In recent USFS land management plans for Southern California, forest types were carefully distinguished and management strategies were offered for each. Silvicultural methods were detailed for seven forest types. Yet when it came to chaparral, types were neither distinguished nor was a vegetation management plan developed. It’s time to start treating chaparral as a valued ecosystem, not as an afterthought to trees.
The gradual invasion of invasive weeds into areas where chaparral has been "masticated" during three separate fuel treatment projects in the Painted Cave area, Santa Barbara, CA. The oldest treatment area is in the middle of the photo, the next in is in the background, and the most recent in the foreground. Note the massive soil disturbance. Such distruption of the soil destroys the ancient soil crust that teams with life and allows the spread of weeds.
As shown in photo above, the spread of highly flammable, invasive, nonnative weeds can be the unfortunate consequence of "fuel treatments" whereby pristine chaparral stands are clear cut by large masticating machines.
Unfortunately, many continue to deny the fact that chaparral can be type-converted into a weed lot by such activity. For example, here is a quote from a Santa Barbara New Press editorial on 9/11/10 that criticized those who are concerned about the excessive removal of native habitat in the Painted Cave area:
"Nowhere in my local experience have I seen any type conversion (one plant community replacing another in an area) or permanent noxious weed invasion directly attributed to fire hazard reduction."
The evidence shows otherwise.
For additional photos of the Painted Cave chaparral removal project in Santa Barbara and other nearby areas being damaged by the excessive removal of native habitat, please go to the Los Padres photo album. We also have more information on the Painted Cave situation on our Panic over Fire page.
1. The Impact of Excessive Fire. Chaparral on its way to being type-converted to weedy, non-native grassland. The site in the image above is east of Alpine off Interstate 8 in San Diego County. The far left shows an old-growth chaparral stand last burned during the 1970 Laguna fire. The middle/left of the picture shows an area recovering from the Viejas fire of January 3, 2001. It is composed primarily of chamise, deerweed, and several other shrub species. To the right is a portion of the Viejas fire scar reburned in the Cedar fire October, 2003. As you can see the Cedar fire scar is now filled with non-native grasses. The majority of the resprouting shrubs have been killed and no obligate seeding species, such as Ceanothus, are present. The interval between the two fires was too short, causing the elimination of the chaparral plant community.
What is Type Conversion?
A common misconception is that chaparral is a "fire-dependent" plant community that supposedly needs to burn on a regular basis to remain healthy. It's much more complicated than that. Chaparral is not a simple, homogenous ecosystem. Each type of chaparral responds differently to fire depending on the species present, angle and direction of the slope on which it grows, local climatic conditions, and the frequency, intensity, and seasonality of the fire. The one factor all types of chaparral have in common, however, is that they are all sensitive to fire intervals shorter than 15-20 years. This is the minimal amount time it takes for a burned stand to recover properly and set enough seed in the soil to be able to bounce back after the next fire. As fire frequencies increase due to human caused ignitions, the intervals between fires have been contracting, causing the complete elimination of chaparral in some areas and serious degradation in others.
As can be seen in the photo above, non-native grasses quickly invade frequently burned areas, making it extremely difficult for a healthy chaparral to return. Areas where native shrublands have been replaced by non-native weeds include:
- North side of Highway 52 in San Diego County next to between Lakeside and Mission Trails Regional Park. What was once a pristine stand of chamise chaparral is now being type-converted to non-native, weedy grassland. The 2003 Cedar fire probably sealed much of the area's fate. - Along State Highway 60 between Moreno Valley and Beaumont in Riverside County (see photo #5 below). - The foothills to the north of Interstate Highway 10 between San Bernardino to Banning in Riverside County. - Box Springs Mountains east of the city of Riverside (see photo # 4 below). - The east side of Interstate Highway 15 between Murrieta and Corona. - The hills along State Highway 91 between Corona and the 241 toll road. - Much of the landscape between Buellton and San Luis Obispo on State Highway 101.
Look along canyons, fence rows, and steep hillsides (where the cattle can't go) and you will see the remnants of the California sage scrub habitat that was likely the dominant plant community in this area prior to human arrival. The older oaks remain, but they are surrounded by a carpet of alien grasses. Much of the summertime "golden hills" landscape on the central coast is actually a disturbed ecosystem dominated by invasive weeds (see photos # 6 and #7 below).
Also see our Desert Fires page for details concerning type-conversion in desert ecosystems.
2. Nearly the entire chaparral and coastal sage scrub ecosystem that once existed here has been eliminated and replaced by non-native weeds. The Witch fire swept through this area in 2007. Photo taken a year later. Location: Clevenger Canyon along State Highway 78 between Escondido and Ramona.
3. Remnants of chaparral are struggling to recover, surrounded by non-native weeds. Closely examine the area in the center of the photo where the shrubs are resprouting after the 2007 Witch Creek Fire. Notice there are few weeds in this area. The absence of weeds can be attributed to the intense heat released when the chaparral burned here. The heat eliminated any non-native weed seeds that may have been present. This is why hot, intense fires are beneficial in chaparral ecosystems. Location: a north facing slope in Clevenger Canyon (also see photo #2 above).
4. Box Springs Mountains, Riverside County. Excessive fires have eliminated native shrublands in these mountains and replaced them with an ugly coating of invasive weeds. Scenes dominated by weeds and concrete are becoming more frequent as poor land use policies continue to encourage habitat loss.
5. The wastelands along State Highway 60 in Riverside County. All that is left of the rich sage scrub and chaparral ecosystems that once decorated these hills are isolated clumps of sugarbush surrounded by a sea of invasive weeds. Fires often burn here every year because annual weeds create highly flammable "fine" fuels.
6. The impacts of destroying native shrubland ecosystems and replacing them with weeds go beyond just the visual loss of nature. Notice the slumping of the hillside on the right hand side of this photo. With the removal of native plant species that provide vital watershed protection via deep roots and vegetative cover, massive amounts of erosion can take place. This loss of watershed also causes drastic reductions in the underground water table since most of the rain water runs off instead of slowly filtering into the ground. Photo taken on US Highway 101 near Lompoc.
7. Cattle trails and the ghost of overgrazing and overburning past. The few oaks left on this hill were likely surrounded by a rich carpet of sage and chamise prior to the introduction of abusive land management practices. Near Buellton, California. Note chaparral covered hillside in the background and cattle trails on hill to the right. We obviously need to provide grazing land for livestock, however, we also need to acknowledge the damage grazing and excessive fires can have on the landscape and prevent such damage from spreading into healthy ecosystems.
8. Type conversion in the Trabuco Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest. This is a fuel break along the ridgeline of the Santa Ana Mountains. All native vegetation has been eliminated by crushing and repeated fire. The effectiveness of this type of habitat elimination in terms of preventing the spread of wildfires is highly questionable because ridgelines are natural fire breaks themselves. However, the natural resource damage is unquestionably significant.
Quote from above paper: "At the interface between human development and chaparral vegetation, desirable management from biological and slope stability perspectives argues not for relatively short rotation hazard reduction burning, but for improving characteristics of the built environment (defensible space, structures, landscaping, safe evacuation means, etc.), in efforts to reduce the perils of fire posed by living near chaparral."
For more information on invasive weeds in the United States, click on the image to the right. This site provides a compiled national list of invasive plants infesting natural areas throughout the U.S., background information on the problem of invasive species, illustrated fact sheets that include plant descriptions, native range, distribution and habitat in the U.S., management options, and more.
DON'T PLANT A PEST!
Give them an inch and they'll take an acre...
Download below the California Native Plant Society's and California Invasive Plant Council's Invasive Plant brochure that will help you identify plants that should not be planted in your garden with suggested alternatives.
Go here to download the printable Don't Plant A Pest brochure here. This is a large PDF file (4 MB) and may take a few minutes to download on a dial-up connection. It has been formatted to print on standard 8 1/2" by 11" paper. The Southern California Don't Plant a Pest website is under construction, so please check this space soon for even more recommended alternatives.
This brochure describes alternatives for the following invasive plants:
Iceplant/hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis)
Ivy (Hedera spp.)
Periwinkle (Vinca major)
Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana)
Fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum)
Scotch, French, Portugese, bridal, and Spanish brooms
Acacia/western coastal wattle (Acacia cyclops)
Myoporum (Myoporum laetum)
Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta)
Canary island date palm (Phoenix canariensis)
Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius)
Blue-gum and red-gum eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus, E. camuldulensis)
Print copies of this brochure (9" x 21" accordion-fold brochure) can be ordered from the Mission Resource Conservation District. Download the order form here, fill it out and return with payment to: Mission RCD WMA program, PO Box 1777, Fallbrook, CA 92088-1777. You can also order by calling Mission RCD at 760-943-6924. Copies of this and other brochures are also available through the California Invasive Plant Council.